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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Presidential Qualifications

I know I have already posted once this weekend, but I have some time on my hands because after 10 days in Williams College housing (I'm back here for another year as a visitor) I have no phone and no cable television, and something has been sticking in my craw for a long time. So, here it is.

Mitt Romney and his campaign argue that his business career as a "job creator" qualifies him to handle today's economy from the White House. I would like to suggest that that argument is, to say the least, dubious.

It is now Republican dogma that billionaires create jobs--dogma that has not, to my knowledge, been demonstrated by sophisticated analysis. But even assuming that it is true--why would that qualify a billionaire (or half-billionaire) like Mitt Romney to be President? If he's so great at creating jobs in the private sector (which, to repeat goes under the heading of "not proven," all the more so since his private sector success occurred in the roaring 90s), why shouldn't we keep him there, where he can do the most good?

It is possible, of course, to imagine a government that does what Bain Capital did--buying troubled corporations, helping to restructure them, and then re-selling them. Indeed, the Obama Administration did exactly that with General Motors and Chrysler. But--surprise surprise--Mitt Romney opposed those moves, and it is most unlikely that he would undertake anything similar as President. Indeed, his opposition to the bailout will very likely cost him Michigan, Ohio--and the Presidency.

So essentially, what Mitt Romney seems to be saying is that the best thing for the country is to make it easier for super-rich firms to do what he did in the 1990s. But the question is--and it's a question the Obama campaign obviously needs to confront head on--did that kind of corporate raiding, downsizing and restructuring actually benefit the American people as a whole, or was it one of the factors that led to the crash and the destruction of much of our high-wage economy? The answer, I suspect, is much closer to the latter than the former.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland appeared to be on the way to victory over James G. Blaine--a Republican who had been caught taking money from a corporation--when it turned out that years earlier, he had taken responsibility for the paternity of an illegitimate child. A Democrat saved his candidacy by suggesting that Blaine, whose private life was irreproachable, should be kept in private life, while Cleveland, whose public life was exemplary, should enter the White House. A similar argument would apply to Romney. If in fact he's so good at creating jobs, he should go back to the private sector and create some. He was, actually, a pretty good governor of Massachusetts, but he has made it quite clear that he has no intention of governing the US according to the principles he observed then.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Professor and the Pol

Universities began primarily as religious institutions, endowed with land and entrusted with studying eternal mysteries of existence. The modern university, developed in the 19th century first in Germany and then in the rest of the western world, largely put its theological mission aside, but assumed a critical social and even political role in post-Enlightenment civilization. To professors, given lifetime tenure, fell the task of studying and evaluating the modern world and teaching a growing elite how it had worked in the past and how it worked in the present. The social sciences--of which history has sometimes claimed to be one--aspired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not merely to understand the world, but to order it according to rational principles of justice. Professional economists certainly played an important role in creating and sustaining the postwar western world, but their embrace of free-market orthodoxy in the last 40 years has inevitably involved an abdication of that role, since they trust market forces, not human reason applied on a large scale, to produce the best possible economic outcomes.

The modern university, as I have had occasion to note in several different contexts in recent decades, has undergone huge changes in the 47 years since I started my college career in 1965. Colleges and universities are now both richer and much more expensive--about three times more expensive in constant dollars--than they were then. They depend upon rich people and institutions more than ever, and they owed much of their growth in the 1990s and 2000s to the decision to turn their endowments into hedge funds--a strategy that led to a disastrous crash in 2008-9 at Harvard and elsewhere. And sadly, as their faculties have gotten bigger and bigger, the concerns of individual faculty members have, for the most part, gotten narrower and narrower. I remarked to a very distinguished historian some years ago that the dirty secret of academia was that so few of its practitioners actually enjoyed it. He immediately agreed.

This week a very famous academic is in the news: Niall Ferguson of Harvard University. An economic historian, Ferguson in the 1990s showed a talent for writing quickly and lucidly, and he followed up a two-volume history of the Rothschild family with a relatively short, provocative, and eccentric book on the First World War, The Pity of War. Ferguson speculated that the world would have become a much better place had Britain stayed out of the First World War in 1914 and allowed Germany to win. The Germans, he said, would have proceeded to create something like the European Union forty years earlier, and the world would have been spared both National Socialism and Communism. Historians who failed to be impressed by the argument of the book included his fellow Anglo-American Paul Kennedy at Yale and yours truly. Still, he suddenly became the most sought-after historian in the US, where academics can rarely resist a British accent, and Harvard wooed him away from NYU.

Although Ferguson has been commissioned to write the authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, he does not spend much of his time being what I would call a historian. He has become a pundit, similar in tone to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never lacking an opinion on any subject and always certain of himself, even if what he is saying now is more or less the opposite of what he said last year. (He now appears to have changed his mind about the Iraq War twice: he supported it, then regretted it, and is now criticizing President Obama for abandoning it too soon.) Ferguson is an unabashed imperialist who still thinks the United States has a responsibility to determine the destiny of the Middle East. Economically he is a deficit hawk. And he wrote the cover article in the latest issue of Newsweek, a piece of typical Republican boilerplate translated into academic prose calling for the defeat of Barack Obama and implying that Romney and Paul Ryan will save the country and the world.

Like all current Republican propaganda, the piece generally gives the impression that history began on January 21, 2009. There isn't a word about how the combination of Middle East Wars, tax cuts, and de-regulation--all dearly beloved by Ferguson--created the permanent deficit and the economic catastrophe with which Obama has had to deal. This is not altogether surprising: Ferguson also spends a good deal of time speaking to hedge funds and other financial institutions, earning a reported $100,000 per appearance. (Another source gives his normal speaking fee at $50-75,000.) Nor, while berating the President for not doing more to help the economy, does Ferguson say a single word about the total obstructionism practiced by his own party for the last four years. His portrait of his adopted country is straight out of a script by Limbaugh or Hannity: "Welcome to Obama’s America: nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return—almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming the 50–50 nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits." (As any educated person should know, while many poorer working Americans pay no federal income taxes, they pay payroll taxes that are higher than what some millionaires pay.)

I was most struck by Ferguson's comments about Obama's foreign policy. I have never been introduced to Ferguson, but I once had an email exchange with him relating to his support for the war in Iraq. Several years after it began, I wrote him that he, and many others, who had brought up the British experience in Iraq, had failed to mention a rather critical fact: that the population of Iraq had increased about tenfold since the British went in in 1919-20, making the possibility of subduing it much harder. He replied that his remarks had been misinterpreted as an endorsement of neoconservatism. Now, however, he seems firmly in the neoconservative camp. He argues that American soldiers will be angry that the fruits of their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned. May I say that at the Naval War College, I don't think I meant a single officer who felt that way. He is concerned thar present predictions show China's GDP surpassing ours in ten years--ignoring that that means that their per capita income will still be only 1/4 of ours, a truly astonishing omission for someone who calls himself an economist. He complains that Obama hasn't done enough to channel the effects of the Arab spring--whose whole point is a rejection of western direction. and so on.

But he saves the punch line for last, and it has to be quoted to be believed.

"Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric. In the past days much has been written about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate. I know, like, and admire Paul Ryan. For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.

"Over the past few years Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” has evolved, but the essential points are clear: replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth. And though Reagan-era veterans like David Stockman may have their doubts, they underestimate Ryan’s mastery of this subject. There is literally no one in Washington who understands the challenges of fiscal reform better. . . .

"I first met Paul Ryan in April 2010. I had been invited to a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion. So crucial did this subject seem to me that I expected the dinner to happen in one of the city’s biggest hotel ballrooms. It was actually held in the host’s home. Three congressmen showed up—a sign of how successful the president’s fiscal version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (about the debt) had been. Ryan blew me away. I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since."

Historians and journalists like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore White used to be accused of fawning over the Kennedys, but I honestly don't remember them writing anything quite like that. Moreover, the Kennedys had genuine intelligence and ability. Paul Ryan, as one analyst after another has repeated, has no plan: just the same discredited supply-side fantasy that Ronald Reagan, in his second term, had to repudiate. He promises more tax cuts to the extremely wealthy but never lays out the loopholes he hopes to close to make up for them. His budget, he has to admit, would not be in balance until 2030. He promises a return to the Bush era, only more so, and weirdly, he promises to keep Medicare for my generation while taking it away from his own. I can only imagine one reason for Ferguson's crush on him: he recognized a kindred spirit, a young man in a hurry who knew how to put his ideas into an irresistible package and create a constituency among the rich and powerful. Ferguson's eminence is yet another sign of the leadership crisis in the United States. Our leading academics, like our leading politicians, reach the top by mysterious processes that do not seem to serve the long-term interests of the institutions they inhabit or of the nation.

P.S. After writing this post I discovered an extremely insightful review of Ferguson's work by Pankaj Mishra, which led to a lengthy exchange. It can be read here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Back to the present

Suddenly, here in the middle of August, three weeks before what used to be the traditional convention kick-off of Labor Day and before either of the very tardy conventions, it seems pretty clear that Barack Obama is going to win re-election. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, whom I do not know, has made a name, a reputation, and a career by applying the kind of rigorous statistical models initially developed to explain baseball to politics. And make no mistake about it: baseball is one hell of a lot more unpredictable than politics, which is why so many more people pay close attention to it and why it's so much more fun. Silver at this point gives Romney only a 30% chance of victory, and he shows most of the battleground states, with the exception of North Carolina, very likely to go for Obama. He also, apparently, gives the Republicans a good chance of picking up the Senate, although I do not believe that he has yet published a prediction based on a fully developed model for that.

Obama's re-election, in my opinion, will by our Thermidor. Since 2000 the Republicans have played the role of the Jacogins in the French Revolution, ruthlessly trying to destroy the old regime--New Deal America--without regard to the consequences, and, in the last few years, eating themselves alive in the process. Romney's decision to select Paul Ryan is proof that the Jacobin spirit is still pre-eminent within the party, even though it couldn't produce a winning Presidential candidate. The bounce he is enjoying at the polls is, as Silver has demonstrated beyond a doubt, meaningless--like convention bounces, it's something that happens to every candidate without affecting the eventual outcome. The choice has already put Romney into deep trouble with older voters, the Republicans' greatest strength. Ryan is what passes for a thinker in today's Republican Party, but his famous budget has never been fleshed out, depends on fantastically optimistic assumptions, and does not include a real explanation of how he would make up the lost revenue from his tax cuts. It is simply another step in the degradation of American politics.

An Obama victory will be a relief, but hardly a cause for celebration. The House will probably remain Republican and the Senate too evenly divided to do anything. The economy will grow slowly and much of the younger generation--like GIs in the 1930s--will be locked out. Generation X, which generally regards both the elder Boomers and the younger Millennials as spoiled brats, will gain more and more power with advancing age. In an effort to restart an effort towards bipartisanship, the President will probably once again cobble together a compromise in December to prevent the Bush tax cuts from expiring. In my opinion he should have let them expire two years ago.

Leadership requires clarity of vision and directed action. Both are almost completely lacking from our politics, just as they were 130 years ago during the Gilded Age. Then, the parties fought a series of close elections decided by a few key states. (New York and New Jersey played the role of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia today.) The parties opposed one another with violent rhetoric without offering anything fundamentally different, and there was no real natonal consensus about anything.

Thinking nationally has become unfashionable. While Republicans encourage economic selfishness, Democrats encourage their adherents to define themselves by gender and race. This country was built upon impartial principles expressed in universal language, and our previous crises--even the least successful, the Civil War--gave that language new meaning. That is not yet happening this time. It may be many more years before it happens again.

Paul Ryan, by the way, has been cited many times as yet another acolyte, like so many of today's Republicans, of Ayn Rand. Oddly, Ayn Rand embodied all sides of our national spirit: she was both a dedicated free marketeer and a social liberal who hated religion and favored abortion. (I don't know what her stance was on homosexuality.) In the last couple of weeks I decided I had no choice but finally to try to find out what all the fuss is about, and I began reading Atlas Shrugged. It's an odd, self-indulgent and very long book, and after 120 out of 1000 pages I'm not too impressed, but I shall try to continue and report on it. Any popular book explains something; the question is what.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sex and Politics - Part II

John F. Kennedy was a charming, energetic and very attractive man, who had grown up in a highly sexualized atmosphere. His father Joseph P. Kennedy was both a devoted father and a notorious womanizer who thought nothing of bringing his current mistresses into his own home, or making passes at his son’s girlfriends. And from the time he was a teen-ager, his son Jack showed the same pattern, as discovered in the 1970s by Joan and Clay Blair, Jr., who interviewed many male and female friends from his youth for their book, The Search for JFK. He was lively, handsome, and sexually compulsive—and few people who met him ever forgot him. “I fell in love with him,” one young woman who met him in 1945 said; “No, I didn’t. I think the main thing was that when he talked to you, he looked you straight in the eye and his attention never wandered. It was undivided attention. I was the most envied girl in the room. He had a way with women. There’s no question about it.” “Jack had more of an Englishman’s attitude toward women,” said an English tennis star who met him in 1945. “He really didn’t give a damn. He liked to have them around and he liked to enjoy himself but he was quite unreliable. He did as he pleased. I think he was probably spoiled by women.” One of his more serious girlfriends, Inge Arvad—a Swede who at one point had been suspected of being a German spy, but who evidently was not—later told her son that Jack would frequently insist on taking a break for sex before going out, even if they had only ten or fifteen minutes to spare. Other women commented that he obviously enjoyed a romantic challenge and always wanted to see if he could measure up. He was most disappointed in 1945 when he could not persuade the actress Olivia de Havilland to break a date and go out with him. It was not in the least surprising that he was not married until he was 36—and that his marriage did little to alter his pattern of behavior. There might have been another reason for all this. Jackie in her oral history revealed her husband to be somewhat more religious than one might have thought—he never missed Mass on Sunday and said a prayer every night—and he may well have taken the prohibition against masturbation seriously. He once told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who himself was virtually celibate) that he got headaches if he went several days without having sex. Many men can well imagine how important women might have become in their youth had they neither married nor masturbated.
Mimi Beardsley, then, was one of literally dozens of playmates to whom Kennedy attached himself over the years. Her story is confirmed in many ways by the much earlier account of Judith Campbell, a Hollywood beauty and sometime Mafia moll whom Kennedy met in 1960 through Frank Sinatra and met in New York and later at the White House. Her White House visit also began with an invitation for a swim with Kennedy and Dave Powers, but she declined because she did not want to mess up her hair. Mimi’s story originally came out thanks to a more senior female aid, Barbara Gamarekian, who told it in an oral history (recorded, significantly, by another woman) in 1965. The oral history interviewers were encouraged to go into such matters, and Ms. Gamarekian was one of the few who evidently rose to the bait. “I understand that people do want these interviews to be candid and to discuss all aspects of the presidency and his life,” she told her interviewer Diana Michaelis, and she identified Mimi and referred obliquely to Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowan—a.k.a. Fiddle and Faddle—as young women who often traveled with the President and clearly had a relationship with him. She also revealed that Jackie evidently had some idea of what was going on. A French reporter from Paris-Match told her that Jackie had given him a tour of the White House and encountered Priscilla Wear in the President’s secretary’s office. “This is the girl who is supposedly sleeping with my husband,” she said in French, perhaps feeling unusually liberated by the change of language.
Fiddle and Faddle had in fact been introduced to the nation in the January 2, 1962 issue of Look magazine. Fifty-six pages of the issue reviewed the first year of the New Frontier, and they rated three of them and seven photographs. “You have to read the papers really through every day,” Fiddle said, “because you never know when the President will ask you about something in them.” “Though no classic beauties,” the unsigned article read, “they have such youthful dash and vigor that everyone in Washington seems to know Fiddle and Faddle.” They assured the interviewer that they had no interest in running for office themselves, that “lady Senators and Congresswomen” were “too hard-bitten.” They also did a joint oral history for the JFK Library early in 1965 with William Van den Heuvel, and although they did not reveal the full extent of their relationships with Kennedy—which had begun in the 1960 campaign—they made it clear that they had toured the country with him, and a casual reader of the interview would certainly be struck by how well they seemed to know his thoughts on political and other matters. Unlike Mimi, Priscilla and Jill were genuine political junkies, and knew, for instance, how angry Kennedy had been to find himself campaigning in New York instead of California just a day or two before the election, given that New York was safely in his column and California, which he ultimately lost by the narrowest of margins, was not.
Kennedy evidently relied on the company of many women for important relaxation and emotional support, even in the most difficult moments of his Presidency. Reading Once Upon a Secret, I had a brief moment of doubt when Mimi described being flown to Washington on the last, critical Saturday of the Cuban missile crisis, the day before Khrushchev suddenly announced his agreement to withdraw his missiles. Kennedy, she said, eventually found time for her in the middle of Saturday evening, when with a small group of advisers he decided to tell Khrushchev that the U.S. was going to withdraw its missiles from Turkey shortly if the Soviets would pull out theirs—although this time they did not have sex. I was shocked because Jackie, in her interviews, said emphatically that she had insisted on remaining with her children at her husband’s side that week, even when the wives of some cabinet members were leaving. Mimi’s dalliances had invariably taken place in the absence of the First Lady—whom she never did meet—and something was wrong somewhere. But a check of contemporary newspapers proved that Mimi was right. When the crisis was mercifully over early Sunday afternoon, Kennedy took a helicopter to his rented country estate in Virginia and was greeted with hugs from his wife and children. Jackie, as she often did, had gone to the country for the weekend, and the President did not want to be alone.
Moreover, Kennedy wanted to have more than one woman available on many occasions. Mimi complains in her memoir that when she was flown out to join him on a trip she had to spend most of the time waiting to be summoned from a lonely hotel room. One such trip took her through the western states in the early fall of 1963, where the President dedicated a couple of dams. That trip began with a visit to the Pennsylvania home of the Pinchot family, whose scion, Gifford Pinchot, had been a symbol of the conservation movement in the Teddy Roosevelt Administration. Pinchot’s grandchildren included Toni Pinchot Bradlee—journalist Ben Bradlee’s wife and a frequent dinner companion, with her husband, of Jack and Jackie—and her sister Mary Pinchot Meyer, wife of CIA man Cord Meyer, who was in the midst of a secret affair with the President herself. Bradlee continued the tour with Kennedy across the country, and as he mentioned in Conversations with Kennedy, he was first invited, and then uninvited, to a small party with the President in Jackson Hole. Bradlee did not discover his sister-in-law’s affair until after her death, by murder, on the C &O canal towpath in the year after Kennedy’s assassination, and as he recountsed decades later in his autobiography, he only then realized why the invitation had been withdrawn. He also knew that Kennedy had strong feelings for Mary’s sister, his own wife, but she was evidently among those who managed to resist his charms and turned him down.
The President, in short, was in the middle of something very like the court of Louis XIV, surrounded by servants of various types, politicians who represented the modern equivalent of leading noblemen, and a bevy number of mistresses. Writing advice for his own son, Louis XIV recommended that he never allow his mistresses any influence over policy, and that certainly seems to have been JFK’s rule as well. But there was in addition a truly incestuous aspect to what was going on inside the White House. This included, of course, Mimi’s most sensational revelation—that during one of their swims, the President suddenly remarked that Dave Powers seemed a little tense, and suggested that she do something about it. She immediately understood what he meant—a blow job—and performed as requested. (Afterwards Powers became angry at JFK, who apologized to them both.) Very young women who have become aware of their sexual power often find it difficult to resist a dare, and so it was in this case—although months later, on one of the last occasions that she saw JFK, Mimi refused to perform the same service for his brother Ted. Barbara Garamekian commented on the same phenomenon more generally in her oral history, referring to Mimi, Fiddle and Faddle.
The thing that amazed me so was that these two or three girls were great friends and bosom buddies and gathered in corners and whispered and giggled, and there seemed to be no jealousy between them, and this was all one great big happy party and they didn‘t seem to resent any interest that the President or any other men might have in any of the girls. It was a marvelous example of sharing, which I found very difficult to understand as a woman! I just think that I would have found it difficult to enter into this kind of a relationship if I had been at all emotionally involved without having some very normal feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. But apparently this didn‘t enter into the relationship. They were the best of friends, and they all seemed to share the same—the same—
MICHAELIS: (interviewer)World outlook!
GAMAREKIAN: Yes. Apparently.
Perhaps the girls found a certain safety in numbers. Mimi saw Kennedy for the last time at the Carlisle Hotel in New York, when she was already planning to be married. He gave her $350—a very substantial sum in those days—to buy herself a wedding present, and announced his intention to call her even after her marriage. She was approached about making the trip to Texas with him in late November, but Jackie decided to go instead.
While the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Mimi Beardsley, Jill Cowan and Priscilla Wear and all the rest undoubtedly have their own interest, they are all now known to history because of their relationship to an extraordinary man, John F. Kennedy. I too have been enormously affected by him without ever having met him face to face in at least three ways. His appointment of my father as Ambassador to Senegal changed my life; he was the great political figure of my youth; and much later, I spent over a decade writing two long books about his Presidency and his assassination, and by the time those were finished I felt I knew him very well indeed. And thus I inevitably return to the question of what all this means about him as a man and a President.
Undoubtedly Kennedy, like so many politicians—including his two greatest rivals and successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—suffered from profound emotional problems. One of the Blairs’ most interesting witnesses was another young woman, Betty Spalding, who met Jack while rooming with his favorite sister Kathleen in Washington early in the Second World War. Like another great politician, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy was intensely social yet almost incapable of genuine intimacy. “Jack and I had a warm brother-sister relationship,” she told the Blairs. “This was a rare relationship, I think. He was not the kind of person to have self-revealing conversations. Jack had a total lack of ability to relate, emotionally, to anyone. Everything was so surface in his relationships with people. . . .His friends—the people around him—were followers and worshippers.. . .his satellites. They were all servile and subservient. . Nobody gets involved with that many girls on anything but a superficial basis.” But Spalding said Kennedy became a more vulnerable and open person emotionally after the birth of his daughter Caroline. He was certainly devastated in 1963 by the death of his third child Patrick immediately after his birth. He sat with Mimi reading condolence letters as tears rolled down both their cheeks, and the only time Ben Bradlee ever saw Jack and Jackie give each other a passionate hug was when they were reunited in Newport after Patrick’s death and burial. He died before the emotional explosion among the postwar generation that changed the United States forever beginning in the mid-1960s. The target of that explosion, I am convinced, would have been different if he had lived, since I believe he would have refused, as he already had on numerous occasions in 1961-2, to involve the United States in a war in Southeast Asia, but it would have happened all the same. Certainly I believe that he might have maintained more a connection to my generation than did Johnson or Nixon.
But, many people are now wondering, was such a man unworthy to be President? Was he not too irresponsible, and too disrespectful of his marriage and of women (as many of today’s feminists might argue), to hold high office? To these questions I must answer with a resounding no. Like Louis XIV and Napoleon, he clearly was not affected by these aspects of his personal life in performing the duties of his office, and he deserves not to be judged by them alone.
Again and again, those who knew Kennedy—from Mimi Beardslee to Ben Bradlee to his closest political and policy adviser Ted Sorensen (the one Kennedy intimate, by the way, who seems to have made Jackie intensely jealous)—return to the same word: compartmentalize. No one could divide the different parts of his life and himself better than John F. Kennedy. In his personal life he was simultaneously greedy and reserved. As President he was careful, almost entirely unflappable, courageous, and never unafraid to assert his own judgment over his advisers’. He changed the tone of American and world politics, projected a marvelous image of the United States abroad—especially in the Third World—and managed to move from nearly disastrous nuclear confrontation to the beginnings of real d├ętente in the last year of his Presidency. He, not Lyndon Johnson, introduced what became the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, even if he did not live to see its passage. And the evidence of all this is now more than ample, thanks both to books like my own and to the tapes he made of deliberations in the oval office. During the missile crisis, which we can now follow in great detail in The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, he was consistently one or two steps ahead of his leading advisers both in anticipating where the crisis would go and how it might end. He rejected their almost unanimous advice to begin war in Southeast Asia in 1961. His policy persona, indeed, is rather brilliantly captured in a recent documentary, Virtual JFK, written by the political scientist James Blight, which shows him privately and publicly at his calm, careful, reassuring and thoughtful best. Kennedy had read about high politics from his earliest childhood and observed it close at hand by the time he was 21. And he put all this training to superb use in his thousand days in the White House.
Kennedy was not only compartmentalized, but scheduled. As I noted in American Tragedy, he lived what looks like a relatively normal life as President. He reached the office between 9:00 and 10:00, worked (usually in meetings) until about 1:00, and then disappeared for 2-3 hours for a swim, a nap, and other forms of relaxation about which we now know more. Then he went back to the office for a few more hours and socialized in the evening. He spent nearly every weekend away. His predecessor Ike had also found ample time for relaxation; his two successors, on the other hand, were hopeless workaholics. It did not make them better Presidents.
For the last 45 years we have increasingly focused upon the personal lives of our leaders at the expense of their performance of their responsibilities. That trend, in my opinion, has contributed mightily to the deterioration of our political life. Many modern political leaders both in Europe and the United States have had significant emotional problems and hyperactive sexual habits without these problems impairing their official functions. Political leadership is an extraordinarily demanding job, so much so that normal, relatively happy and well-adjusted people rarely even try for it. How our leaders perform their tasks is pre-eminently our business; how they meanwhile meet their own emotional needs is not. This was the accepted view for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century—an era of great political struggles and achievements-- but it has become unfashionable in our own less heroic time. It will represent a new stage of American political maturity when, and if, we ever return to it—and it will also restore the possibility that we once again be governed effectively, as we were for the middle third of the twentieth century when an earlier generation established a foundation so secure that even now, we have not fully managed, after 40 years of effort, to tear it down.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sex and Politics in another time

During the last year, two remarkable books have appeared dealing with the personal life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: one by his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, consisting of oral history interviews that she did with Arthur Schlesinger just a few months after his death, and the second, more recent one by Mimi Beardsley Alford, who became his mistress in the summer of 1962 while working at the White House at the age of 19. Both reveal a great deal about the women and mores of a particular time and generation, and both of course also tell us quite a bit about the personal life of one of our most fascinating Presidents. Even readers of a certain age will scratch their heads at how much times have changed on the marital front after reading these books, especially Jackie’s, and younger readers will encounter a different world, the real world of Mad Men. They deal with a time when institutions were more important than personal feelings—not least, the institutions of marriage and politics. Because for the last forty years we have adopted the opposite view, they give us an interesting picture against which to measure ourselves and the very different times in which we live today.

Jackie’s interviews were among the first of the JFK oral history project, and they can be heard, as well as read, in the book and CD package released last year. Together with the equally lengthy interviews with Robert Kennedy, they were the foundation of the project, and they are historical documents of very great interest. In her case their importance relates to social more than political history: the interviews are the most revealing portrait I have encountered of the wife of a powerful man a half century ago. While Jackie had her own life, she completely accepted the idea that her husband’s life came first and that she was there to make his life happier and easier. She knew what he wanted to talk about and what he did not, what kinds of people he wanted around, and what he wanted to discuss. Since he liked to bring up today’s columns by leading journalists, he expected her to know what he was talking about. She took the hint and did her best not to be caught short. She wanted to provide him with the children he loved, and she timed their naps so that they would be ready to see him for half an hour when he came to the residence from the White House office. The lesson is clear: for better or for worse, they don’t make wives like that any more.

Again and again, she explains to Schlesinger that she knew little about the details of policy because Jack, who had worked intently on them all day, wanted to put them aside every evening. Robert and Ethel Kennedy almost never came to dinner at the White House for that very reason; the President preferred his journalist friends like Charles Bartlett, Joseph Alsop and Ben Bradlee (who contributed an equally revealing portrait 35 years ago in Conversations with Kennedy), or intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Schlesinger, who had been a White House aide himself. On the other hand, Kennedy freely shared his personal reactions to his subordinates, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of whom he disliked, Secretary of State Dean Rusk whom he planned to replace, and many others. He was even franker about foreign leaders such as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, of whom he became very fond, and French and German leaders Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, with whom he had much more difficulty. But—and this is a powerful recurring theme in the book—he almost never allowed his personal feelings to carry him away. Jackie, like so many wives of that period, was fiercely protective of his husband and found it difficult to forgive a slight. Jack told her again and again to control her feelings, reminding her that in politics today’s enemy is often tomorrow’s friend, and refusing to hold any grudges or overlook the needs of other politicians, which might conflict with his own.

Jackie repeatedly says that their years in the White House were their happiest together—that nearly for the first time, she felt she could be of real help to him. She had married him in 1953 when he had just been elected to the Senate and was already planning an eventual run for the Presidency, and he had suffered some major illnesses and traveled constantly in subsequent years. She had campaigned a good deal in the 1960 primaries, and comments rather strikingly about the coldness of Wisconsin voters and the warmth of much poorer West Virginians, who indeed gave Kennedy a much larger victory over Hubert Humphrey and indisputably made him the front runner for the nomination. But by the time of the general election campaign she was very pregnant and mostly stayed at home. In the White House, of course, she immediately became an international celebrity in her own right, and embarked upon the restoration project for which she is still famous. “Suddenly,” she told Schlesinger, “everything that’s been a liability before—your hair, that you spoke French,. That you didn’t just adore to campaign, and that you didn’t bake bread with flour up to your arms—you know, everyone thought I was a snob and hated politics”—in the White House, “all the things that I’d always done suddenly became wonderful because anything the First Lady does that’s different, everyone seizes on—and I was so happy for Jack, especially now that it was only three years together that he could be proud of me then.” She also gave him some critical assistance with his back, which flared up again during his first year in office. Kennedy, as she explains, had relied since the late 1950s on novocaine to dull the pain in his back, and the frantic campaigning of 1959-60 had kept him active and his muscles loose. But Jackie—who had developed a healthy distrust for doctors after watching so many of their attempts to help him failed—realized that his first six months in the White House, when he rarely got up from his desk, had weakened, and therefore stiffened, his muscles. Novocaine was no longer doing the trick, and she insisted on getting him some new medical advice, focusing on physical therapy and exercise instead. They worked, and he was healthier in his last two years in office than he had ever been in his adult life. (Meanwhile, Jackie loyally sticks to the myth that her husband did not have Addison’s disease, as Lyndon Johnson’s minions had put about—correctly—during the Democratic convention in 1960.)

Meanwhile, the former first lady leaves no doubt that her husband was an extraordinarily compelling person to be around, and, in his own way, a very affirming one. “The luckiest thing I used to think about him, you know, when we were early married and then later,” she said in their first conversation, “was whatever you were interested in, Jack got interested in,” whether it was drawings, or horses, of Louis XVI and Louis XV furniture, or, “when I was reading all this eighteenth century, he’d snatch a book from me and read and know all of Louis XV’s mistresses before I would.” Jackie had her own serious intellectual interests and a very genuine gift for foreign languages, and at the beginning of their marriage, when the French war in Indochina was at its height, she read a number of French books on the subject and summarized them for him when he came home at night. (Kennedy read voraciously all his life, and he had educated himself on many historical and contemporary topics in the same way.) When the Kennedys visited Paris in June 1961, Jackie astonished de Gaulle with her knowledge of Louis XIV’s court, and once again her husband was correspondingly proud of her.

The ability to be interested in whatever his interlocutor was interested in was a function of John Kennedy’s enormous curiosity, and the secret to his interpersonal success. No one was ever better at making some one feel that he or she was, for these few minutes at least, the only person in the world who counted. And that explains a great deal about his personal life. One could only maintain that skill, perhaps, by continually honing it with different people, not merely the same ones. And that perhaps helps explain why, for the whole of their married life, the Kennedys spent so many short periods apart. “He’d always send you away,” Jackie says, “when he knew you were tired. And then you’d come back so happy again.” During their White House years she spent many weekends visiting her sister, or at the country estate they rented in Virginia where she could ride, or even on her own trips to Europe and Asia. And that is where Mimi Beardsley comes in.

Marion “Mimi” Beardsley was born in 1943, on the boundary of two generations—the Silent and the Boom—to a moderately well-off, socially prominent Republican family living in northern New Jersey. In 1958, when she was 15, her parents sent her to Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, which by a fateful coincidence was the alma mater of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. By early 1961 she was the editor of the school paper, and conceived the idea of going to Washington to interview the First Lady, now the school’s most famous alum. Jackie’s social secretary Letitia Baldridge—also a Miss Porter’s alum—replied that that would be impossible, but invited her to the White House anyway in late March 1961to interview her about the First Lady. She accepted at once. Upon her arrival she was introduced to yet another Miss Porter’s alum, Prscillia “Fiddle” Wear, and her roommate Jill Cowan, now known as Faddle, who also worked in the press office, but who were fairly seasoned political operatives who had worked on the 1960 campaign, sometimes traveling with the candidate. Then the President himself came by for a dip and chatted with Mimi and the other girls for a while. He immediately identified Mimi by name—suggesting to me that she had made a strong, if brief impression on him in the previous year, and that that was the reason she had been invited to work in the White House in the first place. Then, several days later, she was invited to a late afternoon get-together, again by Powers. This time she found Fiddle, Faddle, Powers and another aide, Kenny O’Donnell, and accepted a daiquiri. Then the President showed up again, and suddenly invited Mimi on a private tour of the residence. This in turn led to a bedroom—Jackie’s bedroom, he said—and before she knew what was happening, he was undressing her and himself, and they were having the first sexual experience of her young life. “Are you all right?” he asked her when it was over, having earlier ascertained that it was her first time, and she said she was. Several days later, she got another invitation—the real turning point in their relationship, since she now knew what she was getting into. She accepted and their affair lasted all summer and persisted during the following year after she had returned to Wheaton.

During her sophomore year Kennedy actually called her on her dorm phone, using the alias Michael Carter, to ask all about her courses, her teachers, what she was reading, and her fellow students. She was also invited by Powers to fly to meet the President on various trips for the last eighteen months of his Presidency, and she never said no, even though she was also dating the Williams undergraduate she would soon marry. In a charming commentary on those distant days, Mimi says that she would have been more than happy to push her necking sessions with her boyfriend to full consummation, but did not dare do so for fear of raising questions about previous experiences. At this point, however, it behooves us to take a step backward and place her story in a broader context.

(I will post the conclusion of this article tomorrow--DK)

Friday, August 03, 2012

The new rich?

After a 32-year exile, I am now back at home in the Boston area, very happy to be here and fascinated by what has changed and what has not. Most of the old bookstores are long dead, but three art-house movie complexes and a fourth single screen still survive within a 25-minute bike ride of my house, and my wife and I are taking full advantage. I've seen, I think, six movies already, including two documentaries in the last two days: The Queen of Versailles and Ballplayer/Pelotero. When I lived here for most of the time from 1965 to 1980, similar theaters were filled with my contemporaries, learning about life from the classics of the past and, by the mid-1970s, from the new classics of the present. (I will never forget a summer afternoon showing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Harvard Square theater, which sadly closed its doors about a week before my return. At the climax the screaming audience was ready to storm the stage and help McMurphy finish Nurse Ratchett off.) Now, however, films are playing little or no role in the emotional development of the younger generation. The West Newton showing of The Queen of Versailles had between 50 and 100 people in attendance but there could not have been ten of them under 60.

The movie, however, provided as much food for thought as Inside Job, if not more. David Siegel is the owner of Westgate, the largest time-share outfit in the world. He recruited a lot of his customers by giving them free tickets to Disney World (he lives, and is headquartered, in Orlando). He was on top of the world in 2007 when the shooting of the documentary began, building his Versailles-influenced mansion, soon to be the largest house in the United States, but then his empire crashed and most of his employees went out of of work. His own house went into foreclosure, although he has gotten it out again, apparently, by selling his huge Las Vegas hotel-casino. He is very proud of what he does--vacations, he explains,have been shown to save lives and marriages. Yet his whole empire was obviously built on sand, and throughout the movie he shows a truly astonishing lack of understanding of any of the larger issues that have nearly finished him off.

Siegel, to my utter amazement, gave his clients 90% mortgages. Now he might have understood, one should think, that banks give mortgages on homes (or used to) because they know people care more about their homes than about anything else, and that they will make sacrifices to make the payments even when times are hard. But timeshares? Isn't it obvious that many people will just drop them when they become short of cash? The great recession led untold thousands of his customers to default and destroyed his market. The movie suggests that he borrowed millions--probably tens or hundreds of millions--based on those mortgages--and now his future is in the hands of his banks. He has the gall to blame the banks, at one point, for having addicted him and others like him to cheap money. It was evidently entirely possible during the last twenty years to become nearly a billionaire without a substantial grasp of economics, and that was bound to have consequences.

Jackie Siegel spends a lot more time in front of the camera and seems like a nice person, but her irresponsibility is at least equal to her husband's. She now has eight children, delivered in rapid fire--and what will become of them now, heaven only knows. In one revealing moment, she mentions that she never expected to have more than two, but when she discovered nannies she decided there was no reason not to have as many as possible! Now most of her staff has been laid off and her current mansion--much smaller than the unfinished one--is a disaster area, virtually an open range for their exotic pets, whom they worry are eating each other. She says sadly at one point that the change in their financial position may actually force their children to go to college and get jobs. Elites like these are not self-sustaining.

The success of western civilization was built largely on education, dedication, and good judgment. None of these now seem necessary to rise to the highest levels of business, politics, or, for that matter, academia. And Siegel has political influence as well: at one point he brags of having used an illegal stratagem (what it is, he will not say) to secure George W. Bush's victory in Florida in 2000, and thus his election with all its extraordinary consequences. How typical is he of the kind of billionaire whose influence over our politics has become so critical since the Citizens United decision? I don't know, but I'm afraid he's not as unusual as he looks.

My career at the Naval War College--where some of the old virtues have survived--is now over, and my full-time career as an educator has one more year to run, as a visitor at Williams College. Since moving to Boston I have had a long talk with a very distinguished professor at a leading university who believes his institution has become hopelessly corrupt. We have assumed our civilization is self-sustaining, but it required a great deal of work, dedication, and thought to create. Those virtues are now increasingly lacking, and I'm not sure exactly how they will be revived.